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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Talislanta: the Savage Land

Introduction

The name's Davenport. I review games.

So the other day I hear a loud knock at my office door. When I answer it, I see a great big bald pointy-eared bruiser covered from head to foot in tattoos and carryin' a big whoppin' two-handed sword. So right off the bat, I have him pegged as a Thrall -- a magically-bred warrior from the fantasy game Talislanta. Yes sir, there's only one thing that looks like a Thrall, and that's a Thrall.

"Hello," he says. "I'm a Vandar."

...

"Okay..." I says. "Well, you sure look like a Thrall to me."

"Ah," he says, "That is because the Vandar are the ancestors of the Thralls."

"Ancestors? Okay, that makes sense then. What brings you by today?"

"I am here with a review copy of Talislanta: the Savage Land."

"You're speakin' my language. I love me some Talislanta. What's the 'Savage Land' bit, though?"

"The Savage Land is Talislanta's distant past," he says, "shortly after the Great Disaster that laid waste to the world."

"Post-apocalyptic Talislanta?" I says. "Okay, you've got my interest."

"Excellent," he says. "But just in case, I have brought you this..."

He dumps a big bag of gold coins and gems on my desk.

"That's... a lot more than I usually get for a reviewing gig," I says, eyein' the pile of goodies.

"Such things are worthless to us in the Savage Land," he says. "All that matters is survival."

"Well then!" I says, sweepin' the loot into my desk drawer, "What we need around this place is a lot more survivin'."



Substance

Setting

Because Talislanta: the Savage Land is a prequel game, you can't really understand what it's all about without knowing what Talislanta itself is all about. To that end, I highly recommend the excellent Talislanta FAQ at www.talislanta.com, where, incidentally, you can find free legal PDFs of every Talislanta product that exists except for this one. However, not wishing to completely shirk my duties as a reviewer, I'll give you an overview myself.

Talislanta is a very non-traditional fantasy setting that's been around in various forms since 1987, featuring no humans, orcs, dwarves, or, as the promotional material is eager to tell you, elves (although there are numerous elf-like species, in my opinion). In fact, the only nod to "normal" fantasy settings is the presence of demons, devils, and dragons. The place is full of exotic nations and peoples, many of which have a vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely dream-like feel, not unlike those found in H.P. Lovecraft's The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Magic is a powerful force that's omnipresent. I have often described the place as looking like a 1970s Yes album cover. It's a world full of wonder and beauty.

So, what is Talislanta: the Savage Land?

Well, in Talislanta's distant pass, an event occurred descriptively known as the Great Disaster, laying low the preexisting mighty nations, wiping away all knowledge of magic beyond the simplest of rituals and superstitions, and leaving only scattered tribes struggling for survival in the trackless wastes. This is the Savage Land: a dark, gritty swords-and-sorcery setting -- well, without the sorcery -- as a counterpart to "normal" Talislanta's much brighter high fantasy.

The book describes 11 PC species, 12 NPC species and 45 monsters, as well as a section on Savage Land flora -- a highly respectable menagerie. Many of these beings are, naturally, the distant ancestors of those found in "modern" Talislanta -- some more obvious than others.

It also features vividly bleak descriptions of eight territories, from the burning sands of the Black Desert to the mutant plants and creatures of the Junglelands, each with its own extensive random encounter tables. Given the lawless nature of the setting and the wandering the PCs are likely to do, these tables are ideal.

Of particular note is the Gyre, a vast perpetual magical maelstrom that warps time, space, and anything else it touches -- a threat that could strike anywhere in the Savage Land. In addition, the section describes five different sorts of ruins that wandering PCs may come across, providing interesting places to explore as a break from constantly scrounging in the wilderness.

The equipment section deserves a special mention. There is no currency in the Savage Land -- coins and shiny rocks have no value. (Silver is the one exception, since demons are vulnerable to silver weapons.) Accordingly, the section starts out with lists of simple raw materials and trade goods. On the opposite end of the scale, the powerful magic items of the fallen Archaen civilization might be discovered, including runeswords, magic wands, and the 200' tall robot-like siege golems.

System

The game comes in three rules variants: the original Talislanta rules, D&D 5th edition, and D6 (West End Games' Star Wars, et al). Here, I'll be covering the original version.

Character Creation

As is the case with most of the previous incarnations of Talislanta, character creation is, for the most part, a simple matter of selecting an archetype from the list of PC species, with many species offering more than one archeype.

The species:

  • Drakken: 10' tall dragon-men.
  • Imazi: Tall, slender nomadic hunter-gatherers.
  • Kasir: Desert traders and tomb-robbers.
  • Narada: 7' tall primitive plant people.
  • Reavers: Wiry wasteland scavengers and bandits.
  • Shaka: Leoninef hunters.
  • Shan: Proud golden-skinned swordsmen.
  • Vandar: A magically-created all-male warrior race.
  • Viragos: A magically-created all-female warrior race.
  • Warloks: Soulless assassins and wizard-hunters.
  • Yann: Short armadillo-like builders and engineers.
It is important to note that these races aren't even remotely balanced against each other. In particular, Drakken and Vandar characters are likely to dominate a group, especially given the lack of magic to counter these powerful physical specimens.

Talislanta: the Savage Land features a small fraction of the choices found in other editions; accordingly, the game allows for slightly more customization than do the other editions except for 5th. Specifically, players get three points to increase attributes however they wish. (This does not apply to Vandar characters, all of whom are exact duplicates of each other.)

Speaking of attributes, those found in the game are Intelligence, Will, Perception, Charisma, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Speed. These abilities start at zero and expand outward in either direction. (Since there are no "baseline" creatures like humans, there isn't really an average score or an attribute range.) Hit Points are a matter of the species average as it appears on the archetype added to the individual's Constitution score.

Note that unlike in recent editions, Talislanta: the Savage Land does not include a Combat Rating or a Magic Rating. Since there is no magic system, there is no need for the latter, and the various combat skills fall under either Dexterity or Dexterity + Strength. I generally prefer this method, but only slightly.

I do find it odd that some skills fall under one attribute, others under two, however. I'd prefer some consistency there.

Skills are moderately specific. Every sort of weapon is its own skill, for example, even when the skills would seem to be related -- short bow and Shaka longbow, for example.

Given the nature of the setting, I appreciate the extra attention the skills section pays to the Survival and Barter skills.

As mentioned previously, only primitive magic rituals remain in the setting. These all take the form of Willpower-based skills:

  • Commune with Animals
  • Commune with Plants
  • Commune with Spirits
  • Concoct Potions
  • Create Charms & Talismans
  • Create Totem
  • Curse/Remove Curse
  • Influence Emotions
  • Primitive Enchantment
That last one is of particular importance, since there are many creatures in the setting that are impervious to non-silver, non-magical weapons.

Task Resolution

The core game mechanic hasn't changed appreciably from previous editions of Talislanta. It's an attribute + skill +/- target number system. Once these figures are added together, the result is added to the roll of 1d20 and compared to the following table:

  • O or less: Critical Failure
  • 1-5: Failure
  • 6-10: Partial Success
  • 11-19: Success
  • 20 or more: Critical Success
That one mechanic runs the whole game. It's simple, transparent, and slick. Note, however, that with a negative modifier, you can never get a Critical Success, and with a positive modifier, you can never get a Critical Failure. That could be a feature or a bug, depending up on your point of view. However, a roll of 1 is always some kind of failure and a roll of 20 is always some kind of success. I'm neutral on that one. I'd be a lot less happy if the chance of a Critical Failure or Success were purely random.

Combat

Combatants roll 1d6 + Speed for initiative and resolve attacks using the table above with the difference between combat skills as a modifier. Damage is by weapon die type with a Strength modifier for hand weapons. Armor reduces damage. Partial Successes do half damage; Critical Successes do double damage and force the victim to make a Constitution roll to deal with a critical wound. Depending upon the quality of this roll, the wound could have no effect, give the victim a penalty, incapacitate him, or leave him in dying. This mechanic can result in truly brutal results between mismatched opponents, which seems fitting for the grim-and-gritty setting. My only quibble is that the Constitution roll bears no relation to the amount of damage done in the attack, but perhaps that would be too brutal.

Mass Actions and Mass Combat

It may seem like an odd addition to this particular edition of Talislanta, given its focus on tribes rather than nations and armies, but the book includes rules for actions and combats involving large numbers of participants.

In both cases, the mechanic revolves around adding up the overall advantages possessed by each side rather than around the individual abilities of the participants. (It does, however, give bonuses for the presence of particularly powerful individuals.) Once the advantages are added up, the total is added to a d20 roll and compared to the standard task resolution table.

In the case of mass combat, the task resolution table gets a slight tweak:

  • O or less: Critical Failure -- routed with 50% casualties; survivors must roll to avoid capture or death
  • 1-5: Failure -- defeated with 25% casualties; roll leader's Renown or lose all advantages next round
  • 6-10: Stalemate -- 25% casualties on both sides and combat continues
  • 11-15: Partial Success -- 25% casualties inflicted and +1 advantage next round
  • 16-19: Success -- 25% casualties inflicted; roll leader's Renown or lose all advantages next round
  • 20 or more: Critical Success -- enemy routed with 50% casualties inflicted; survivors must roll to avoid capture or death
I haven't had a chance to put this mechanic to the test yet, but to someone like myself without the time or inclination to run the minutia of a full-scale battle, it appears to be pretty simple and effective.

Style

The full-color art in this book differs quite a bit from the elegant drawings of PD Breeding-Black that gave Talislanta its original look. That difference is very much one of style and not of quality, however. The images are uniformly gorgeous but generally melancholy, most showing scenes either at night or under an overcast sky. Combined with the "ruined parchment" motif of the text background and margins, the overall effect might best be described as "oppressive"... which, I'm sure, is exactly what was intended. It certainly feels like it suits the setting, at any rate.

The writing is likewise moody but informative, presenting both the rules and the setting clearly and efficiently. The relatively open layout counters the darkness of the art, keeping the oppressive feel from making the text unpleasant to read.

Unfortunately, the book lacks an index, but the comprehensive table of contents does a decent job of making up for this.

Conclusion
This is a very high-quality and beautiful game that really does provide you with everything you need to play in the dark past of Talislanta. Some of the rules may strike fans of recent editions of the original setting as steps backward, such as rolled rather than fixed weapon damage, but such things are very easily house-ruled.

Quite frankly, the only "negative" thing I can say about this game is that for my tastes, the setting is a bit too good at being bleak and depressing. It may sound silly, but even though I know this is a prequel and not a sequel, I found myself thinking wistfully of the vibrant, colorful "modern" Talislanta setting while reading the rulebook and feeling sad to see the place reduced to such a sorry state. In fact, Savage Land sent me running back to the original game for a new campaign.

Now, that's just me. If a bleak low-magic post-apocalyptic fantasy setting sounds remotely appealing to you, then you owe it to yourself to check this game out. I don't know of a better game to scratch that particular itch.
 

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Mercurius

Legend
Good review. Talislanta is one of my all-time favorite games and settings. I hear you about the last point - I like the Savage Land as one avenue of exploring Talislanta, but it ends up taking out a lot of what makes Talislanta special. It is sort of like watching Star Wars in black-and-white (or so I would imagine). Talislanta's greatness has a lot to do with the rich vibrancy of its diverse races and cultures, and the accompanying plethora of archetypes.
 

Good review. Talislanta is one of my all-time favorite games and settings. I hear you about the last point - I like the Savage Land as one avenue of exploring Talislanta, but it ends up taking out a lot of what makes Talislanta special. It is sort of like watching Star Wars in black-and-white (or so I would imagine). Talislanta's greatness has a lot to do with the rich vibrancy of its diverse races and cultures, and the accompanying plethora of archetypes.
Thanks for the feedback, Mercurius! :)
 

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